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The JFK assassination, Cuba policy and Operation Mongoose

United States
JFK and family

under a Creative Commons Licence

Every aspect of the assassination of John F Kennedy on 22 November 1963 has been pored over, scrutinized, dissected and analysed. There is a sizeable literature on the subject, ranging from the erudite to the certifiably insane. That six short seconds should have generated so much speculation is unprecedented. In this Whodunit saga, pretty much everyone has been implicated: the Mafia, the CIA,  the FBI, the military-industrial complex, Lyndon B Johnson, Fidel Castro, the KGB… An objective purchase on the event, lost in the mists of time, appears to be unrecoverable. Instead, we are left with a matrix of subjectivity and perspective. The JFK assassination has become the ultimate postmodern riddle.

The Warren Commission kicked off this process when it published its 26 volumes. Publicly, Bobby Kennedy did not question the lone assassin theory, but privately he shared his doubts with confidantes. It has always been puzzling why, as Attorney-General, he did not go to greater lengths to investigate the murder of his brother. On the afternoon of the assassination, he called up a prominent anti-Castro Cuban leader and, his voice not betraying any emotion, coolly told him, ‘One of your guys did it.’ It is likely Bobby Kennedy realized he was up against powerful forces and the reputation of the Kennedys was at stake. He may even have later resolved that running for the Presidency might be the only way the truth would be disclosed.

This period of US history proved to be toxic, with a poisonous legacy that is still felt today. The assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X followed. Race riots and the Vietnam War would lead to such civil unrest and turmoil that political leaders accelerated the passing of civil rights legislation and wound down the war. The era culminated in Watergate. The Church Committee, named after Senator Frank Church, would eventually be set up in order to investigate the actions of intelligence agencies and how events had spiralled so out of control. The revelations that followed of the FBI’s mass surveillance and wiretapping programme CountelPro and the CIA’s Executive Action programme (code-named ZR/RIFLE) were incendiary. The latter was the CIA’s assassination apparatus, which employed a strategy of plausible deniability in order that the executive could disavow responsibility in the event of exposure. It was directed against various foreign leaders. The Church Committee not only meticulously details the CIA’s failed plots on Castro’s life but also documents the involvement of the CIA with the Mafia in this common aim. The US public would never see their government institutions in the same way again. Faith in government began to crumble the moment those shots rang out in Dealey Plaza.

Malcolm X was probably closer to the mark than he realized when he commented on the assassination that ‘the chickens had come home to roost’. He was referring to the climate of hate in the US at the time. Actually, it is Kennedy policy in Cuba which is most pertinent. Kennedy inherited the Cuban Project from the Eisenhower-Nixon administration. The young and inexperienced President only agreed reluctantly, at the last minute, to go ahead with the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which ended in the failed coup to overthrow Castro. Publicly, Kennedy accepted responsibility but privately blamed the CIA for misleading him. The CIA conversely blamed JFK for withholding air cover critical to the success of the operation.

Many of the same CIA operatives – among them David Attlee Phillips, E Howard Hunt and David Sanchez Morales – had successfully instituted regime change elsewhere. The trio were all veterans of the Guatemala campaign of 1954. This saw a CIA-backed operation remove the democratically elected leftist leader Jacobo Árbenz, leading to 40 years of brutal military dictatorship and the estimated deaths of 200,000 Guatemalans. Similarly, in Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh was overthrown with the aid of US and British intelligence after he had nationalized Iranian oil.

As the dust settled on the Bay of Pigs, JFK set out to make sure the CIA never embarrassed him again by returning it to its original remit of intelligence-gathering rather than covert operations. Kennedy had vowed to splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and he was now making good on this promise. In the shake-up which ensued, JFK fired Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA, Charles Cabell, deputy director, and Richard Bissell. Intriguingly, Cabell’s brother Earle was mayor of Dallas at the time of the assassination.

Operation Mongoose emerged out of the ashes of the Bay of Pigs. This was the redesigned Cuban operation, which was officially under Edward Lansdale but really under the helm of Bobby Kennedy. It eventually grew into a monster under the guise of which thousands of Cuban exiles were recruited and trained up at US bases. Cuban exiles and CIA personnel worked alongside each other day and night to topple Castro.

The Eisenhower-Kennedy strategy in Cuba centred on fomenting internal and external strife through anti-Castro groups, subverting and undermining the regime through acts of terrorism, industrial sabotage and the works. A pipeline of arms and gun-running ran from Dallas, Texas, through New Orleans – at the time a hive of intelligence activity – down to the JM/WAVE CIA station based on the campus of Miami University. JM/WAVE was run by the psychotic and alcoholic William ‘Bill’ Harvey and employed hundreds of CIA staffers. It used Zenith Technical Enterprises as a front company to disguise covert ops. In Texas, the Zapata Oil company was another CIA front company co-owned by one George Herbert Walker Bush.

Secretary of State Dean Rusk would later comment: ‘The Kennedys were playing with fire.’ The Kennedys may have fallen out with the CIA over Cuba, but this was more a question of methodology than ideology. For both parties, the ultimate prize remained the overthrow of the Castro regime. Of course, the Bay of Pigs earned JFK the enmity of the affiliated hardcore exiles and CIA operatives. During the missile crisis, JFK refused to invade Cuba. The secret deal negotiated with Khrushchev pledged that the US would not invade again, in exchange for the removal of Soviet missiles.

However, as Richard Helms, Director of the CIA from 1966-73, later testified at the Church Committee, the Kennedy brothers were very aggressive in their pursuit of Castro. Post the missile crisis, in spite of the Khrushchev deal, JFK authorized multiple CIA ops against Cuba in 1963. True, Operation Mongoose had been disbanded and they ordered the FBI to clamp down on the more extreme groups such as Alpha 66. However, the Kennedys were merely transferring the Cuban project under their aegis. Remarkably, in the autumn of 1963 when JFK had begun exploring secret talks with Castro, Desmond Fitzgerald – a Kennedy confidante put in charge of operations in 1963 – was meeting up with AM/LASH (the cryptonym given by the CIA to the senior Cuban official, thought to be Rolando Cubela), whom it had recruited to kill Castro. It is likely that the more extreme CIA-Cuban exile elements misinterpreted JFK’s ambivalent Cuba policy as betrayal of their cause. 

Youssef El-Gingihy is a GP working in Tower Hamlets. You can reach him on Twitter or on his blog,  The X Ray Factor.

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